Virginity, Virgin, Virginal, Are you…?

I have been thinking a lot about virginity recently.

A sex ed teacher recently asked me how I would respond to a 6th grade girl who asked for the definition of “virgin.” Does “virgin” apply to those who have done a wide range of sexual activities, but have not engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse? Or can “virgin” only apply to those who have not engaged in oral, anal, manual, or missionary-position, heterosexual sex? The essence of her question seemed to be, “Would Monica Lewinsky still be a virgin?” This teacher and her co-teacher disagreed on the answer to the Monica Lewinsky question, and they wanted my professional thoughts so they could present a unified front to the young girl who originally asked the question.

I essentially rejected the basis of the question.

This is a question I get a lot – I get it from parents, from children, from teenagers, from teachers, from grandparents, from non-parent-single-people. Everyone seems to want to know: What is a virgin?

But rather than answering, weighing in on this ridiculous point that carries such extreme emotional weight, I encourage the asker to look inwards and to try and identify why they want to know what sexual acts a virgin-no-longer-makes.

The answer is always this: “I want to know if _________ is still a virgin.” Please feel free to fill in the blank with whomever you so choose. Some of the more common fill-in-the-blank people include: me as I am, me as I once was, my best friend, my boyfriend, my child, my student, my grandchild.

And I scratch my head and ask: “Do you know what sexual acts they have done? Because if you don’t know, then having a definition of virginity won’t help you. If you do know, then why does it matter whether those acts can be defined as virginal?”

Or maybe they want to know the Official Definition for Virgin because one of those people told them “I am a virgin.” But if you have to head for a sex expert for the real definition of virgin, then the likelihood is that the person who said it didn’t know either. So it still won’t help if I give you the definitive definition.

And all of this conversation about virginity brings to mind the very yucky side of a strict definition of virginity, like hymenoplasty (hymen restoration surgery). Judith Warner wrote a fabulous piece about just this thing recently for the New York Times. Here is a quote:

“But there is nonetheless a kind of horror to [fathers who attend Purity Balls with their daughters] obsession with their daughters’ sexuality. There is a dangerous boundary violation contained in their vow “before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity.” And there is even greater danger to the fact that this particular aspect of the nationwide “abstinence movement” has not been broadly denounced as the form of emotional violence against girls that it indisputably is.”

Warner is basically saying, as I have said in circumspect ways to parents, teachers, teenagers: “Who gives a shit?”

Why do you or anyone else care who is a virgin? Why does this single word have so much power over you? I won’t define the word for you, because I reject the word itself. And so should you.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. This is the first time I haven’t really gotten your point, Karen. I think I’m going to like it when I do, but your post today is confusing as written. Could you either write more about this issue or clarify what you’ve written? I think it’s always great to ask adults to think through their emotional reactions to what teenagers do, especially what they do sexually. I also want to understand what you’re saying about the creepy emphasis adults put on teen virginity…so say more about that quote as well (I’ll go read the whole thing too, I see you gave the link)

  2. Thank you, Dr. Rayne. Not for ‘rejecting the word itself’ – I don’t think you did that. You insist on a nuanced, conversation in depth about the substance of the issue on an individual basis. We (all of us living in the American culture at the very least) have as a culture gotten attached to having definitive answers given to us, without considering whether or not the answers will be helpful to the person asking. I’ve dealt with another discipline with this same issue in the past few weeks and have held a slightly different answer for a reason I think appropriate, but I appreciate tremendously the importance you are placing on having the in depth conversation about the real issues, rather than coping out and giving an answer that would not be helpful and would not address multiple situations appropriately. Thanks for the sanity.

  3. The issue is: There is substantial weight (emotional, social, religious) put on whether or not someone is a “virgin,” while at the same time “virgin” has a wide variety of potential meaning. The question about sexual experience is rarely, “Have you had an intense physical connection with someone?” or even “Have you given or received oral sex?” but instead the question about sexual experience is “Are you a virgin?”

    The word is imprecise, and rather than being used to get to know someone and their sexuality, it is used to categorize (slut or non-slut) and judge (good or bad).

    Margaret, does that help with the general point of the post?

    And as for it being creepy that adults pay such close attention to and care so deeply about adolescent sexual experience: Do you disagree? And I think it’s particularly, and highly, problematic when fathers claim their daughter’s virginity (as they do at Purity Balls) to keep safe until the daughter marries – when the father hands it over to her new husband. This is gross. This is creepy. This is fathers owning their daughters, but because our society has such high-strung feelings about whether or not someone is a “virgin,” everyone thinks that maybe it’s really best for the girls.

    And yes, Dorian, I do reject the word “virgin”! I will only use it in quotation marks much like my use of the term abstinence-only “sex ed.”

    But the reason I reject “virgin” is because I want nuanced conversation, I want people of all ages to actually talk about sex and sexuality, rather than using highly inspecific, highly emotional terminology.

  4. […] What is the DEAL with virginity?  I’ve written about this in the past (and here and here and here).  There seems to be some intense psychological attraction that some […]

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